The State of Food Safety
by Andy Hanacek, Executive Editor
Dr. Richard Raymond, Under Secretary for Food Safety with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, talks with The National Provisioner about what the meat and poultry industries have yet to do to make the nation’s food supply safer.
It’s been a buzzword for so long, there’s really no longer any “buzz” about it — “food safety” has been real for years, and any processors not incorporating it into their daily activities and concerns will not be long for today’s business world.
With so much emphasis riding on science, data, technology and regulation, The National Provisioner went straight to the top and sat down for a one-on-one interview with Dr. Richard Raymond, who took over as Under Secretary for Food Safety with USDA-FSIS two years ago and has had his finger on the pulse of this industry’s efforts in this arena. What follows is a peek into what the industry and consumers can expect from Dr. Raymond’s agency in the near future, thoughts on what the industry has done well and solutions for fixing the problems that have arisen in recent times.
Andy Hanacek, executive editor, The National Provisioner : On a scale of 1-10, where would you say the meat- and poultry-processing industries are as a whole in terms of food safety?
Dr. Richard Raymond, Under Secretary for Food Safety, USDA-FSIS: Seven and a half; I don’t know if I’m quite ready to say it’s at a full eight just yet.
Hanacek: What can help the industry boost that number?
Raymond: Better science [will continue to help]. The science is always getting better and that helps us produce a safer food supply. … The science we’ve developed in reducing pathogen numbers on carcasses, such as E. coli O157:H7 on beef carcasses — the hide rinses that our scientists at [the Agriculture Research Service] have developed, chemicals and patterns that have helped us decrease the pathogen load at the very earliest stages of the slaughter process. Those things will continue to get us better.
Another thing we’d like to do sooner than later is redesign our inspection program to put our inspectors where the risk is greater for contaminated product in processing plants. It’s called risk-based inspection of processing. We’d still do daily inspection, but we’d like to spend a little more time and do a few more procedures in those plants that have not demonstrated the same ability to control potential problems than those plants with better track records.
It just makes common sense, but at the current time, we’ve been blocked by Congress to do that, and I know that it would make the food supply even safer.
Hanacek: As far as your role goes, what differentiates food defense from food safety? How do the two intertwine?
Raymond: They actually intertwine quite closely, and there’s not a whole lot of difference — one is an accident caused by Mother Nature and the other is intentional caused by humans. But we’re still talking about contamination of the food supply that we regulate, and everything we try to do to prevent that from occurring on a natural basis will also help reduce the chances that someone could intentionally contaminate the food supply.
Plant security has increased throughout the country, obviously, to decrease the chances of human intervention. The bigger concern I would have is more in the transportation and the retail stores, where we don’t have that regulatory authority.
Hanacek: What do you believe to be the biggest threat to food safety in the meat and poultry industries today?
Raymond: Human error — the industry is so streamlined now, so automatic, that a lot of times, there’s not that individual attention being paid. And if there’s a little bit of sloppiness on a hide pull, for instance, you’re going to get E. coli contamination of the carcass. If there’s not due attention paid to temperatures and pHs of chillers, you’re not going to reduce the Salmonella numbers the way you’d like to in a poultry plant. … I think there are good policies out there, but sometimes policies get circumvented.
Hanacek: Recently, there have been a lot of reports of recalls of meat and poultry products across the country. To what do you attribute this higher incidence: greater awareness on the public’s part, overabundant media coverage, higher standards?
Raymond: Probably all of the possibilities you mentioned are factors. But overall, the number of recalls is down dramatically from five or six short years ago, when we were seeing recalls in the triple digits and poundage in the tens of millions. Last year, for instance, I think we had a little less than 50 recalls and five million pounds of product. This year, we’ve had a couple of big ones, so the trend, unfortunately, in terms of total poundage, is going to go the wrong direction this year. Those are the ones that get the big media attention also, so it seems as though there have been a whole lot more recalls.
Hanacek: Therefore, since the overall scope of the recalls tends to determine the media coverage, and since there were a couple big ones this year, it just appears to be worse?
Raymond: That’s part of it. A couple of other things that come into play are the products being recalled. We recalled spinach for E. coli, and that was news because nobody ever thought of getting E. coli from eating spinach. And the recall of the cans for Clostridium botulinum is news because it had been about 30 years since we’d had a recall for canned product. So, again, it’s different, or new, or once every 30 years, and when it happens, it’s going to get a lot of media attention.
There are a couple of other things that we think contribute to recall numbers. They’re down in some areas because of hold-and-test methods. On the other hand, 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have linked an E. coli in Nebraska to an E. coli in California and said, ‘Gee, it must be something that’s shipped nationally.’
We link those cases together much more quickly than we ever did. … So PulseNet at the Centers for Disease Control has allowed us identify outbreaks, which has allowed us to identify products, which does allow us to do more recalls.
Hanacek: So the technology has improved as well to support this?
Raymond: We’ve had a tremendous move forward in our epidemiology investigations of foodborne illnesses. We’re doing a lot more microbiological sampling than we used to do. We’re going to find more pathogens, which, if [processors] don’t hold product, will lead to more recalls as well. For example, if we quit testing for
E. coli O157:H7 or Listeria, we’d have a lot fewer recalls, but we’d have a whole lot more sick people. Increased testing has produced increased recalls.
Hanacek: How can the government improve regulation of food safety not just within the FSIS realm, but beyond? Are there any gaps in the system?
Raymond: Yes, there are some gaps. That’s why I would give the food-safety system a 7.5 instead of a 9.5. One gap is, we’re doing a lot of testing in the plants, but we’re doing an awful little testing in retail stores. A lot of things can happen once a product that tests negative in the plant gets to your dining table. It has to be transported in a truck and properly refrigerated in the warehouse, truck and grocery store to keep bugs from growing. There are a lot of places that can break down.
We’re hoping to start a new project where we’ll do a lot of testing in retail stores to better attribute illnesses but also get closer to the consumer. We need to make sure that the product remains safe on its way to your refrigerator or freezer. That’s one area in which we can do better.
Another thing we’re working on is more seamless interfacing with our U.S. Customs Border Patrol on imports. We need to know what’s coming in and the time it’s coming in to make sure it gets to our import houses for proper re-inspection and sampling. Sometimes that intersect is missed, and it’s sometimes days before we find out that a product did not go through proper inspection before going out in the market. We’re doing a better job, I can tell you that.
Hanacek: What emerging technology excites you in terms of the short-term future of food safety?
Raymond: The possibility of eliminating E. coli O157: H7 from the intestines of cows. I don’t know if it’s going to be a vaccine or antibiotic or something in the feed, but the animal meat research labs are doing phenomenal work in this area. They just have to figure out a way that’s economically feasible and practical. I really do think they’ll have that in a few years, and that will just be a watershed moment.
Hanacek: What other things about the future of food safety should the industry expect to see in the near term?
Raymond: If we can get our risk-based inspection into processing, we can make an impact there. But even more exciting to me is public health-based inspection in slaughter. We have model projects in 30 plants — 20 chicken, five turkey and five pig. We announced in August of 2005, my second month on the job, the numbers of Salmonella on carcasses were just an embarrassment to the industry and to this agency, and we declared war on it. We’ve gone from 17 percent of carcasses being positive two years ago to 6.7 percent being positive in the last quarter of this year.
The biggest success rate, however, has been in the HACCP Inspection Model Program (HIMP) plants — these model poultry plants I just mentioned. Salmonella numbers there are below 5 percent and they’re about 8-9 percent for the traditional poultry plant. There’s a tremendous gap because we do inspection differently in those model plants, and I want to see us do that model in all poultry plants.
Hanacek: Can you discuss the public health-based inspection model that is used in these HIMP plants in more detail?
Raymond: We’re initiating a regulatory process — rule-making — to allow us to do this public health-based inspection in young broiler and young turkey plants. We have the [scientific data] to show there’s a tremendous decrease in the amount of carcasses testing positive for Salmonella in the HIMP plants. Over a seven-year project, we’ve watched this, and it’s now time to say to the American public, ‘Do you really want to eat poultry that comes from these plants rather than the HIMP plants?’
So we’re going to try to get all plants like the HIMP plants. What it really means is this: Statutes require us to do carcass-by-carcass examination; statutes don’t require us to do a one-minute physical on every chicken that goes by. … What we’re really doing [now] is looking for broken wings, broken legs and other signs of trauma. It’s quality control for the industry.
So we will propose taking some of our inspectors, moving them off that carcass-by-carcass inspection to HACCP and SSOP investigations, more sampling and more testing offline. That’s what is happening in these HIMP plants, and it’s shown that doing things that way can drive down the pathogens. We’re not going to see Salmonella in a carcass inspection — we have to do the carcass sampling, and we have to check the plant’s quality-control systems.
Hanacek: What other initiatives is your agency working on that will improve food safety and security for the meat and poultry industries?
Raymond: We have seen a concerning increase in the number of samples that test positive for E. coli O157:H7. Last year it was 20 positive samples out of about 12,000 total. However, this year, we’re up to 16 [positives] already. In one four-day weekend period, we had five samples that tested positive, and that’s what really got me concerned.
Fortunately, all five of those were in plants that hold the product, so you didn’t hear about any recalls. But we have had nine recalls already for E. coli O157:H7 this year, and that’s more than we had in 2006 and in 2005. The samples are testing higher.
We’ve had two outbreaks in blade-tenderized steaks — a real anomaly because it was figured steaks were safe to eat medium-rare because the E. coli couldn’t get inside the steak. Now, these blade-tenderizers increase that possibility. So we’re starting to see some things that bother me.
Hanacek: How is FSIS responding to these events to ease your concerns?
Raymond: We’ve done some things already, such as the Baseline Trim Study, trying to get a little closer to the cow in this case, instead of the consumer, testing the trim that goes into the ground beef. We have several things to get our arms around this E. coli issue before it becomes a problem. One is, we increased our sampling by 50 percent in mid-July. So we’ll probably see more sample positives because we’re increasing the sample, but the percentages become important. Again, we’re trying to find it in the plant, where the product is held, instead of after an outbreak.
If a plant tests positive, we’ll have increased scrutiny for the next 120 days after the positive test. They’ll get 16 samples pulled in the 120 days if they’re making over 1,000 pounds per day of ground beef. If they’re making under 1,000 pounds, we’ll pull eight samples. That’s to make sure that this plant itself doesn’t have some kind of problem in its processes, rather than just saying, ‘You got a positive, throw the meat away and we’ll be back in six months.’
We’re going to continue to pay attention, and we’re also going to go in with [Enforcement Investigations and Analysis Officers], and do a food-safety assessment in every plant that has a positive E. coli. That really means there was a human error or breach somewhere in their system that allowed this contamination to occur. We want to go in and find out where it occurred and help them prevent it from occurring again. I would rather prevent illnesses than do recalls because of illnesses.
We are also going to change the way we test and sample. We’ve taken six years of E. coli data and have a new algorithm that we’ll be implementing this fall — changing the way we pick plants to sample based on history, volume and past positive samples. Once a plant tests positive, it’s going to get — beyond the first 120 days — real intense scrutiny. They’ll get more testing than their neighbor who maybe hasn’t tested positive in five years. So we’ve got a lot of exciting things coming.
Hanacek: Yet, overall, you’ve been pleased with what the industry has done in the realm of food safety and security?
Raymond: It’s been quiet because we haven’t had huge outbreaks, but we don’t want huge outbreaks. I’m not complaining about the [media] scrutiny — it makes us pay attention to our job 100 percent. It makes you want to get out of the spotlight, and the way to do that is to have a safer food system. That’s why I want to take that seven and a half and move it up to an eight or nine. That said, we won’t get to a 10 for a long time though — the science just isn’t there yet.